Kansai is the cultural and gastronomical heart of Japan. The old imperial capitals of Kyoto and Nara were where a delicate and refined court cuisine evolved, and in the port cities of Osaka and Kobe, innovative merchants combined foreign culinary habits with Japan's rich gastronomical culture.
We began our foodie tour in Osaka, Japan's second largest city and business centre. In Dotonburi, a precinct of bright neon lights and covered food streets, tourists, salarymen and young punks rub shoulders and enjoy good food.
Kani Doraku's (http://douraku.co.jp) iconic giant crab and its moving mechanical arms caught our attention and before long, we were enjoying a kaiseki (multiple course haute cuisine set) of Hokkaido crab prepared in a variety of styles - sashimi, sushi, grilled, dumpling, soup, chawanmushi and more. And there is the orangey crab roes which you either love or hate. This was followed by cream cakes and coffee in a make-believe world of retro nostalgia, at American, a café with exuberant vintage 1950s décor.
For the adventurous seeking a numbing kick, the area has one of the highest concentration of puffer fish restaurants in Japan.
If you are seeking simple good old ramen with delicious pork broth, look out for the simple eatery with a huge green dragon above (Kinryu Ramen, 50m east from Kani Doraku). Alternatively, head for Yoshibei (http://yoshibei.co.jp), which is near Nankai Namba station and not far away, for what some claim to be the best katsudon restaurants in Osaka.
The port city of Kobe is a 30-minute train ride away from Osaka. Every Osaka visitor comes here for the legendary Kobe beef, supposedly from Tajima-gyu breed virgin cows (or castrated bulls) which are fed beer, massaged daily and to strains of classical music. The virgin's sacrifice would cost you at least 6,000 yen (S$74) but promises fine marbled beef that melts in your mouth.
Many fine Kobe beef restaurants are found along Kitanozaka Ave. Reservations are necessary, particularly during weekends. Head for the award-winning Kawamura (http://bifteck.co.jp/en/index.html) or the nearby branches of Ishida (http://kobe-ishidaya.com).
Head uphill to the Kitano area, which used to be an enclave of foreign merchants and consulates, and is now a pleasant district of nice cafés and dessert shops. Try the popular ice cream and cheesecakes made by Kobe Rokko dairy farm (http://rokkobokujyo.com), located in the pastures in the northern plateau of Kobe prefecture.
From Osaka, we hopped on to the train across the green countryside of Nara prefecture to the highland town of Yoshino, which is famous for sakura viewing every April. The historic temples of Yoshino are also part of the Unesco World Heritage Site known as the "Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range".
We spent one night at Sakoya (http://www.sakoya.co.jp), a family-run historic inn established 280 years ago. We soaked ourselves in the in-house onsen (hot springs) before an elaborate kaiseiki dinner. A night here costs 18,000 yen per person. Meals are included and we got very spacious rooms with private views of the beautiful verdant hills.
Have kakinoha (a kind of pressed sushi wrapped with persimmon leaves unique to Nara prefecture), green bean pastries and green tea at one of the many teahouses that face the pagodas and serene green hills of the Kii range.